The Blessed Virgin in the nineteenth century. Lourdes part 8.


THE supernatural is to he seen in its effects at Lourdes oftener than actually at work. But sometimes, in presence of the naked human eye, unsightly scales fall away and fresh flesh tissues are formed. A case of this kind has been related to us by Madame X , a dame hospitaliere of Lourdes, as having come under her personal notice. It was that of Blanche Leclere, of Vincennes, belonging to the National Pilgrimage of 1898. This girl, who was seventeen years of age, was suffering from lupus. Her face, swollen and misshapen, was in wounds ; her skin was of fiery redness, her features were partially eaten away, her whole aspect was revolting. On August 22nd, at the procession of the Blessed Sacrament, she experienced a feeling of burning in the affected parts. A certain sense of improvement in her condition followed, and remained with her, but this was all. The next day, as the hour of the departure of the members of the National Pilgrimage drew near, no one thought of classing her otherwise than as among the uncured. Suddenly, in St. Elizabeth's ward of the Hospital of Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs, as Blanche Leclere was busying herself in putting her things together previous to her departure, the aspect of her face was seen to be changing. In presence of Madame X— - and of several others, the wounds healed, the incrustations fell away, while the skin resumed its natural colour, the face its proportions, and the features their form. This process of transformation lasted half-an-hour, at the end of which time no sign of the hideous disease remained, if we except a pink line round the girl's face showing whither the ravages of the lupus had extended.
Blanche Leclere, on realizing her altered state, wept. As she raised her eyes to heaven, her first words were : " Oh, how good God is ! Now I can earn my living."
The cure was verified at once at the Bureau des Constellations. The girl, thus rid of one of the most terrible diseases that afflict humanity, had been a sufferer from this same disease for the previous eleven years, and doctors of more than one Paris hospital had tried their skill upon her in vain. The details of her case are given in the Annales de Notre-Dame de Lourdes of September 30th, 1898.
This same dame hospitalise might almost say that she was witness of another case of the visible working of the supernatural, so immediate was her view of an eye transformed into a perfect one, which an instant or two before had been sightless and unsightly.
The case is that of Alfred Aubert, a strolling singer, whose most fixed place of residence was at Bordeaux-les-Rouches, in the department of the Loiret. This man had, in 1881, been victim of an accident, which at the end of two years had left him totally blind. One eye had suppurated and dis appeared. The other had remained, but in an atrophied state and sightless. Aubert had spent the intervening fourteen years in wandering from place to place with his family, earning a precarious existence by singing. Often face to face with want, he had never lost trust in God, and his religious life had been, moreover, marked by a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin. In 1897 circumstances took him to Lourdes as a member of the National Pilgrimage. On the morning of Saturday, August 2ist, he was with others in front of the Grotto, on the silver altar of which the Holy Sacrifice was being celebrated, and he happened to be close to Madame X , the dame hospitaliere alluded to. This lady's office for the moment was to look after a young sick girl who could not move, and to whom the priest was about to bring the Blessed Sacrament. Turning to Aubert she asked him if he were going to communicate.
Having done so that morning, he replied in the negative, but remained on his knees in prayer. In turning to him and putting her question, the dame hospitaliere had had time to notice his one eye blurred, opaque, protruding and repellent. The priest with the ciborium drew near, and the Sacred Host approached the sick girl's lips. In another moment the God of the Eucharist had passed on to other sufferers in the open air in front of the Grotto. But, in His passing, He had restored sight to the blind, for Madame X , glancing an instant afterwards at the man beside her, saw a clear, limpid eye looking up at hers. The eye was complete as to form, colour and expression, and tears were streaming from it. Alfred Aubert's eye was thus opened to the light for the first time after fourteen years of total blindness. Examined directly afterwards at the Bureau des Constatations, it was found that he could read a book of diamond print. He had gone to Lourdes in possession of unquestionable medical certificates extending over a period of more than ten years, and stating that his blindness was incurable. The technical details of his case are given in the Annales de Notre-Dame de Lourdes of September 30th, 1897.
Since the opening of the miraculous spring by Bernadette, each year at Lourdes has seen its succession of remarkable cures. There has been no missing link in the chain of years, each one being noteworthy and historic. In each National Pilgrim age there is material for a book.
Coming to the first year of the present century, we dwell willingly on the case of M. Gabriel Gargam, who was cured August 2oth, 1901, on the first day of the National Pilgrimage.
The Daily Mail, by the pen of its Paris correspondent, gave a graphic description of this cure, from which we quote as follows :
" The Host had just been carried past us yesterday afternoon, when there came an inarticulate cry from a man lying on a stretcher just in front of me, and a sobbing exclamation from a white-haired woman near the stretcher.
" The man upon it grasped its sides with hands which looked like claws, so thin were they, and with a convulsive movement raised himself to a sitting posture.
"'Help me up,' he gasped, while two great tears rolled down his emaciated cheeks into his beard. 'I can walk, I feel I can! ' Ready hands helped him to his feet, and, like one risen from the dead, he stood, hatless and trouserless, and with nothing on him but a nightdress and a dressing gown. ' Let me walk !' he cried again in a queer hollow voice.
"'Hear him, Holy Virgin, hear him!' sobbed the mother. ' He has hardly spoken for twenty months.' In sight of the thousands massed along the line of procession, this rag of humanity, with legs like rolling pins and with feet a mass of sores, walked five tottering steps upon his dressing gown, which had been pulled from his shoulders for him to stand on, and then fell back exhausted into the outstretched arms around him."
Exhausted or not, Gabriel Gargam was a cured man from that hour, or rather from the moment when he had gasped, "Help me up ! I can walk, I feel I can !" In order that the reader may under stand his case, we must look back. A post office letter-sorter, employed in the railway night service between Paris and Bordeaux, this man had been one of the most seriously injured in a railway accident that had happened nearly two years before at Livernaut, near Montmoreau. The spinal marrow had been injured, and paralysis of the lower members had followed, together with suppurating wounds in the feet. Hardly able to speak, and becoming more emaciated day by day, this human wreck had passed the intervening months lying on boards in a hospital ward at Angouleme. The apparent hopelessness of his condition may be judged of from the fact that, in accordance with a verdict given by the civil tribunal of Angouleme and ratified by that of Bordeaux, the Orleans Railway Company had consented to grant the injured man an indemnity of 60,000 francs and a pension for life of 6,000 francs.
Gabriel Gargam, being at that time in religious matters a practical unbeliever, it was at the instance of others that he had consented to go to Lourdes. His cure took place between four and five in the afternoon, as the Blessed Sacrament was being borne through the ranks of the sick. Hardly conscious just before of what was going on, it was as the Sacred Host was passing that he felt a violent commotion within him and that he said : " Help me up ! I can walk ! I feel I can ! "
Though still emaciated and weak, he became at once able to walk and to take food. Also, at once, the wounds in his feet began to heal, the healing process being even visible to lookers-on.
Dr. Boissarie, in testifying to the thoroughness of this case, stated that he who had been the object of it was still a living skeleton, but a skeleton that in the eyes of all was regaining life and strength each moment. The case at once took its place as one of the most conclusive and remarkable of the year.
Meeting two months later Gabriel Gargam, at the Bureau des Constellations of Lourdes, we saw before us a tall man with a grave, pleasant face, and showing no sign of infirmity or ill-health.
Having heard that he had regained his faith as a Christian and a Catholic, on the day of his cure and at the moment of the passing of the Blessed Sacrament, we ventured a question on the matter. The reply was : " The change did not take place at the passing of the Blessed Sacrament ; it had taken place in the morning at the Grotto."
The aged mother was standing by and our eyes met.
" Oh, the prayers that had been said for him ! " she murmured ; " Oh, the novenas to the Sacred Heart that had been made ! "
Here then was the explanation. With this, as with so many of the Lourdes cures, there was, be hind a great physical fact, a spiritual background of prayer and supplication. In presence of this humble Monica, who, presumably by her prayers, had obtained her son's conversion and her son's cure, we said : “You ought to be the happiest mother in France." In reference to his previous state of unbelief, we heard Gabriel Gargam say: " But I believe now and shall believe evermore."
NEARLY fifty years have passed since the first miracles at Massabiello. We are in another century, points of view have changed ; and yet in this dawn of a new age, we find Lourdes the greatest of scientific battle grounds. It is a spot where the supernatural is proving itself by physical facts—an arena where science and the supernatural cross swords. It is a medical school to which other medical schools look, including those of Nancy and the Salpetriere.
The two last-mentioned are often placed in opposition to that of Lourdes, and the words hysteria and hypnotism are mentioned as putting an extinguisher on the miraculous element in the Lourdes phenomena. The hypnotic cures, and also the hypnotic tricks, associated with the Salpetriere and the name of M. Charcot, are by opponents sometimes spoken of in the same breath with unexplainable cures effected at Lourdes.
Is hypnotism at work at Lourdes ? Dr. Boissarie answers the question in his Histoire Medicate de Lourdes, by saying: "Hypnotism means sleep, and no one sleeps at Lourdes." Is suggestion at work at Lourdes? The same authority in the same work answers the question as follows : "Suggestive action of untold power is without effect in producing cures at Lourdes." "Nor can sustained effort of the will produce them," he says, adding: "There is no law or rule for these cures, which some times take place in the bodies of unconscious infants, and sometimes in those of persons who have long ceased to hope or to look for their restoration to health." Our author concludes in italics : "The programme of these cures is not written by the hand of man." For our part we may say that, if there is suggestion at work at Lourdes, it is of the kind which inspires holy hope and something of that faith to which Our Lord alluded when He said : " If you have faith but as a grain of mustard seed, you shall remove mountains."
But we will carry the question out of the domain of hypothesis into that of facts. Hypnotism and suggestion do not claim dominion over other than nervous diseases; these occult powers do not pre tend to be able to cure a cancer suddenly, or fill a gaping wound with sound flesh. Any comparison possible between the schools of Nancy and the Salpetriere and Lourdes is made on the ground of nervous maladies alone, and this comparison, weak at best, loses all weight in presence of the fact that the Lourdes clinique, in basing its claims on the super natural character of certain of its cures, carefully eliminates from the question nervous diseases of every kind. Though numbers of cases belonging to the class of nervous affections are, to the medical men concerned, clearly marked by the finger of God, yet, for the sake of argument, they are ruthlessly set aside as not affording sufficient proof of the supernatural. With the object of being able to assert this same supernatural before the world and in the teeth of science, only those cases are chosen on which medical skill has proved powerless and which have been effected in a manner either un-explainable by nature's laws, or at variance with these same laws.
In view of the work being done by the Lourdes clinique, its importance as a medical tribunal is explained. It marks, as nearly as the present state of science will allow of, the dividing line between the natural and the supernatural.
Over against Lourdes thus seen in its scientific aspect, there is another Lourdes more pregnant with facts, more world-embracing in its contact with in numerable thousands. This Lourdes is the rendezvous of souls, the great focus of Catholic life, the spot pre-eminent among others, where suffering humanity is not only healed and cured, but morally renovated. It is the spot where people pray with the voice of multitudes, and where Heaven rains down graces, visible and invisible. In speaking here of visible graces, we allude especially to that class of cures on which the super natural sets no distinct mark, and which Catholic doctors designate as graces and blessings. The objects of cures of this class, however, consider, for the most part, that Heaven has spoken as clearly in their case, as if they had been healed in a manner at variance with nature's laws.
A remarkable case of this kind, that of Olympe Nemery, a young woman living at 54 Rue de Sevres, Clamart, near Paris, came before our notice at Lourdes, September 8th, 1901. It was Sunday, and near five o'clock. The Blessed Sacrament had passed amid the ranks of the sick, and was about to enter the Church of the Rosary, when suddenly the young woman to whom we allude, and over whom the Sacred Host had just rested, rose from her stretcher. She ascended the steps leading to the church, and kneeling down like those around her, with arms extended in the form of a cross, she joined in the Parce Doinine. Appearing as sick unto death a minute before, she seemed as one resuscitated. The vast throng of lookers-on included a band of English pilgrims. A young priest of this band said to us on the subject the following day : "I do not think we could have a more visible proof of the presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament than the cure of that woman yesterday afternoon."
In truth, Olympe Nemery, before rising from her stretcher, had appeared to be one of the most seriously ill of the sick around : she had been subject to constant vomiting, and had been unable to keep down food ; that very morning-, or during the previous night, she had received the last Sacraments. After being examined at the Bureau des Constatations on that Sunday afternoon, she was accompanied back to her hospital by a rejoicing crowd. No one hesitated to apply to her cure the word miraculous. Yet the Lourdes tribunal at whose bar the miracles are tried was not ready to speak in this sense.
Alluding a few days afterwards, at the Bureau des Constatatious, to this case of Olympe Nemery, we heard from Dr. Cox, an English medical man, Dr. Boissarie's valued coadjutor, words to the following effect: " She was suffering from paralysis produced by nervous exhaustion, a disease curable in itself, yet one that is rarely cured. That this cure might have been effected under natural conditions is alone sufficient to prevent us from attaching importance to it as a case of proof. We look upon it as a grace and blessing for the person concerned, and that is all."
Thus was summarily dismissed, at this most inexorable of human tribunals, a case which, by the numbers of persons before whose notice it had come, had been considered miraculous, and which, seen as angels see, perhaps really was so. Often vox populi in such matters is vox Dei.
It is possible that at this same inexorable tribunal some of our Lord's miracles would not have been allowed to pass muster on the ground that paralytics and cripples raised by the Divine hands showed in their bodies no organic lesions, and that their sufferings could be traced to a nervous origin. All honour, however, to this Lourdes tribunal which throws down the gauntlet to up-to-date science.
THE pilgrimage season at Lourdes is from May until October, though it is only during the last three summer months that thousands continually pour into the town so as to render it little else than a vast hostelry.
The culminating degrees of intensity of the religious life there at the height of the season may be said to be reached each day at the afternoon procession of the Blessed Sacrament. Each of these glorious manifestations in honour of the Eucharist is typical ; each resembles each ; each is unlike anything else in the world.
The procession takes place between four and five in the afternoon. It is being awaited by the sick, lying or reclining in rows on the great open space in front of the Church of the Rosary. Be hind these, on each side, a dense crowd darkens the ground. The noble Rosary Church of Byzantine style, presenting, with the graceful basilica above it, the effect as of one block, shows its ledges and parapets to be lined with human beings. Human clusters, too, are gathered on the rocky heights behind. Every available spot is occupied whence the anticipated scene of splendour can be looked down on. Many thousands of persons are assembled in a comparatively small space.
The lengthy procession passes along, and its main body is falling into place above, when its rear enters the precincts allotted to the sick. As the strains of the Adoremus in cetemum draw nearer, all eyes are turned in the direction of the Blessed Sacrament, followed by one or more bishops and a line of ecclesiastics in cloth of gold. All know that sublime moments are near. All know that Christ, in His sacramental presence, is about to visit in person and pause above each of His suffering members, there assembled. Then may be said, in the words of the English poet, "The prayers of men and angels are as one." The attitude of the multitude becomes at once one of prayer. Arms are extended in the form of a cross. This is notice able in numbers of the poor, prone, hoping sick, in the dames hospitalieres tending these sick, in the brancardiers drawn up in lines in the foreground, in the masses grouped around, and in the farther-removed pilgrims up on the heights. Sweetly, grandly, yet as a full-voiced wail, the strains of the Parce Domine rise, their burden, ne in aeternum irascaris nobis, seeming to linger with unutterable pathos on the summer air. The Gospel invocations, far-reaching, thrilling, and uttered by a priestly voice, follow. Each is repeated by thousands of voices forming one, until the rocks around ring. Among the words that fall on the ear are: "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us ! " " Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord !" "Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me whole!" "Lord, he whom thou lovest is sick?" Every few seconds nothing is heard but a succession of Hosannahs. It is impossible to describe the effect of this Gospel cry, uttered by a multitude in unison, and echoed by the heights around. It is a cry of appeal as one of triumph, for at each sign of a cure having been effected, the Hosannahs redouble in intensity.
At intervals the invocations are interrupted by the singing of the Ave Maris Stella, as well as of the Parce Dominc. Then the Gospel cries are resumed. Among these are : '* Thou art the Son of the Living God ! " " Thou art the Resurrection and the Life!" "Thou art Christ, Son of the Virgin Mary ! " " O Lord, glorify Thy Mother ! " " We adore Thee, we glorify Thee, and we praise Thee ! "
There is no discordant note, nothing of febrile religious excitement in the mighty shock of sound coming from the throats of thousands. Though the scene is pervaded by an intensity of religious life which the chain of the Christian ages cannot have seen surpassed, it is at the same time marked by perfect calm and order. To those who fix their eyes on the gleaming monstrance, it is as if the Man-God were before them in the same human presence in which He trod the Judaean hills nineteen centuries before.
When the last strains of the Tantum Ergo have died away and the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament has been given, the crowd, massed in front of the Church of the Rosary, breaks up, and an indescribable scene of animation follows. The sick await their brancardiers to bear them away, while those regarded as cured are being followed rejoicingly to the Bureau ties Constatations. In the midst of the vast throng in movement, attention is not unfrequently drawn to a small circle of brancardiers moving slowly forward and holding together by their leather straps. They are surrounding a person in the throes of the death agony, and whom two of their body are bearing away on a pallet or stretcher. We have thus seen a young girl in white borne away, and to a step so measured and gentle, that had the sufferer been on her bed she could not have felt the movement less. Two dames hospitalleres walked beside her fanning. The protecting circle was to afford air and to keep off the crowd. Meanwhile the Ave Maria was being softly murmured around to soothe and strengthen the passing soul.
What a chapter might be written on these brancardiers ! As has been said, they are gentle as women in handling their sick, many of these being nothing more than remnants of humanity from the Paris hospitals. It seems to us that beside them the preux chevaliers of old are of less account. Those battled for the rewards of an earthly ladye-love, while these toil for the unseen smile of her whose white effigy looks down upon them from the rock of Massabiello.
As the great throng breaks up in earnest, some go to their temporary homes, while others eat their evening meal in the open air sitting beneath trees or by the rolling Gave, this Gave the while bordering the scene on one side as with a line of silver or flashing crimson in the rays of the setting sun.
The great days at Lourdes close with brilliant illuminations in the evening. The first of these illuminations is often the moon rising in her glory and accompanied by a few great stars. Then the great cross of flame on the height of the Pic du Jer appears against the night sky. Then the Chateau Fort shows its lines of fire in the distance. And then the basilica and the Church of the Rosary become suddenly ablaze with coloured electric lights. The incomparable night picture is not complete until the torchlight procession, with its something like 50,000 lighted tapers, and sometimes more, has encircled the Esplanade of the Rosary from end to end with a broad moving band of flame. The Ave ave ave, Maria! then chanted by the thousands assembled, can be heard all over Lourdes.
The crowds who help to fill Lourdes during the summer months take with them every variety of costume, from the quaint coifs of Brittany and Normandy to the snowy kerchiefs folded over the breasts of the women of Aries. There are people there from every clime in Europe. There all languages meet. There the sonorous Hosannahs, in honour of the Eucharist, may at times be heard ringing out in Italian and at others in German. At times, too, the volume of sound is swelled by " Faith of our Fathers," and " Hail, Star of the Sea," sung in English by a band of English pilgrims.
One of the striking features of the pilgrim life at Lourdes—so striking as to be almost phenomenal— is the Christian resignation and calm content of the great legion of uncured. These seem to under stand to the full, though probably without ever having heard or read them, the Gospel words : "And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus, the prophet, and none of them were cleansed saving Naaman, the Syrian." (Luke iv. 27.)
In the way of description, the most cursory view of Lourdes would not be complete without a glance at the pile of buildings on the rock of Massabiello, which has been the Catholic world's response to the request for a "chapel," formulated by the Immaculate in one of her Apparitions to Bernadette. The crypt, hewn in great part out of the solid rock, was the first to take form. Then the basilica, in thirteenth century style, grew above it. Then, below it, on ground level with that of the Grotto, rose the Church of the Rosary. This daring architectural attempt, in which various styles meet, seems, as seen in a general glance, to serve as a splendid base for the graceful basilica above. The originality of conception of the Rosary Church is carried out in the colossal semi-circular double balustrades, which it throws forward, one on each side, which, to use a simile already applied to them, seem as arms wherewith to embrace the multitudes that gather within. These balustrades are built on arches and form two broad walks leading up to the basilica. As many as 35,000 persons can assemble within the enclosure which they form. The view in front is the Esplanade of the Rosary, a long vista of sward and trees.
The unique pile we are considering has been built at the expense of the Catholic world. Before leaving it we will glance within at its three separate parts.
The crypt is a very gem in stone, pervaded, as it seems, by a sort of mediaeval glory, with its lancet windows, subdued colours, rich mosaics, and marvellous sidelights. The interior of the basilica charms by its effect of unity, as by the strength, simplicity and elegance of its pure Gothic. Banners from different countries, including England, hang around. Of the twelve lamps before the tabernacle, the centre one is from Ireland. Above the high altar, of white-veined Carrara marble, there is a beautiful crowned statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, the crown being of gold and diamonds. At the feet of the statue lies a gold gemmed palm, the gift of Pius IX. In the Church of the Rosary, with its semi-gloom and roseate light thrown from on high, the visitor is attracted by the fifteen chapels in honour of the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary, all wrought in exquisite mosaics.
There is language in this three-fold temple raised to God's glory ; it is the language of the Catholic world proclaiming belief in the Lourdes Apparitions. The temple speaks another language also— that of the many thousand ex-voto tablets on its walls, proclaiming graces received and prayers answered.
This altogether unique pile is seen against an amphitheatre of Pyrenean heights, against the majesty of eternal hills. The play of colour on these hills is, in a general way, rather soft and subdued than brilliant, and is to be seen in beautiful effects of grey and green. But when nature here begins throwing on her carmines with a lavish hand, she knows how to incarnadine a whole mountain by a single stroke. The Pic du Jer is the highest summit round Lourdes. We remember to have seen, on a fine June evening, this height and its adjacent one suddenly crimsoned by a glow from the setting sun, the background the while being of deepest indigo. The glow, luminous translucent, all-suffusing, and turning greys to purple, seemed of a radiance not of earth. No human artist could have thrown such colours on his canvas. The incarnadined mass was as of quivering, living, sentient.
The Chateau Fort^ perched on its solitary rock, is one of Lourdes' picturesque features. For centuries the fortress was in the hands of the English. This means that this part of France was comprised in the rich heritage which Eleanor of Aquitaine took to the English crown.
But natural effects of sky and mountain, and striking features and historic considerations, sink into insignificance beside the incomparable religious beauty and grandeur of modern Lourdes. By modern Lourdes, we mean what pertains to the rock of Massabiello. There are other rocks in France with sacred memories attached to them, but none that we know of that, in less than half a century, has had time to become as polished marble by contact with the lips of innumerable multitudes. In all, Lourdes is a spot without parallel in the Christian world. There, Gospel scenes are renewed as vividly as when the Gospel narrative was first enacted ; there, is a Pool of Bethsaida needing no angel to move its waters ; there, in His sacramental presence, Christ heals as He did in the days of His flesh.